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Surprise Finds in Tequila Country Volume 59 Number 6, November/December 2006
text and photographs by Julian Smith

Amid the agave plants, a sophisticated civilization emerges.


Circular pyramids above the Mexican town of Teuchitlán date between 200 B.C. and A.D. 350. Their design is unique. [LARGER IMAGE]

Phil Weigand and his wife, art historian Celia García de Weigand, look more like a pair of kindly grandparents than groundbreaking archaeologists. Phil has a touch of actor Wilford Brimley about him, and Celia has wide eyes and speaks quickly.

In addition to their four grandchildren, the couple will leave behind another legacy after decades of work. With a mix of enthusiasm, diplomacy, and dogged determination, the Weigands have helped rewrite the ancient history of West Mexico.

In 1963, Celia was on vacation in the Tequila Valley near the small town of Teuchitlán, in the Mexican state of Jalisco. During the trip, she discovered a number of large obsidian blades at the bottom of a natural swimming hole. (Obsidian was highly valued in prehistoric cultures for its ability to hold razor-sharp edges.) The find intrigued Phil, then an archaeology field assistant in Zacatecas. Together the couple later located a huge nearby obsidian workshop, where millions of blades and sharp pieces of rock were piled up to three feet deep across two acres at the foot of the extinct Tequila volcano.

Archaeologists already knew of the region's ancient shaft tombs. Dating to the first centuries A.D., these tombs had small burial chambers at the bottom of vertical cuts up to 60 feet deep. Many had already been plundered of their gorgeous ceramics, including nearly life-size seated figures, at the beginning of the twentieth century. But despite the sophistication of the tombs and figurines, the area was still widely considered a cultural backwater compared to Mexico's Central Valley and the Yucatán. In archaeological terms, the tombs existed in a vacuum. Virtually nothing was known about the people who made them.


Phil Weigand at Guachimontones. Among the most heavily looted in Mexico, the Teuchitlán sites have joined the area's historic tequila distilleries and agave fields on UNESCO's World Heritage List. [LARGER IMAGE]

"We planned to spend a summer, or at most two," Phil says of their initial project in the valley. That changed when they discovered remnants of large, round buildings scattered around the region. Nothing like them had ever been seen before in Mexico--or anywhere else.

During their first field season in 1970, the Weigands examined aerial photos of the valley. "We found hundreds of buildings shaped like concentric circles, mostly around the volcano," Phil says. "They were everywhere!"

A 217-acre site above the town of Teuchitlán called Guachimontones was especially interesting. After struggling up the flank of the volcano, Phil recalls, "We finally reached a circular compound whose beauty, symmetry, and monumentality far exceeded the expectations we had formed from the aerial photographs." Huge circular structures covered with vegetation sat on a natural platform overlooking a wide, well-watered valley. Though the site was known to local farmers, it was virtually unknown to the outside world, archaeologists included.

The Weigands had discovered a new civilization, one to which they devoted the next 30 years of their lives.

What they had found was a ceremonial center, the heart of what the Weigands named the Teuchitlán tradition. This complex society, responsible for the area's shaft tombs, reached its peak between 200 B.C. and A.D. 350, when more than 50,000 people may have lived within 15 miles of the Tequila volcano. At its height, the Teuchitlán tradition was the cultural center of West Mexico, with unique, complex architecture and a trade network that stretched from Guatemala to Arizona.

Julian Smith is a travel and science writer and photographer based in Santa Fe.

© 2006 by the Archaeological Institute of America